Researcher of the Week: Tyler Van Kirk

Tyler Van Kirk is a graduate researcher and SEANET Research Fellow in Theme 2: Changing Environments. Van Kirk received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Maine and went on to continue his studies as a graduate student at UMaine under Dr. Ian Bricknell. As an undergraduate, Van Kirk worked on a ME EPSCoR funded study in the Bricknell lab, using that research to complete his capstone. Once graduation arrived, Van Kirk was encouraged to stay on the project as a graduate student and has been working as a SEANET Fellow ever since.

Currently, Van Kirk’s work focuses on the invasive green crab species in Maine. His research looks at the effect they have on native species, the parasites that survive in the crab as they have invaded the coast from overseas, and what will change with the species in the warming waters of Maine.

“Green crabs eat a lot of important species that we care about and that we are interested in, such as soft-shell clams and lobster larvae,” Van Kirk explains. “They have a pretty big economic impact on coastal fisheries and also on our pristine Maine coast.”

A particularly negative impact is the destruction of eelgrass beds, a safe space for other species to live and grow. The invasive species has successfully invaded every continent in the world except for Antarctica, making them predominantly considered the most successful invasive species in the world, as Van Kirk explains.

The research being done by Van Kirk specifically considers much more closely the spiny-headed worm, a parasite commonly found within green crabs.

“Our research is really aimed at trying to understand […] does the parasite affect the crab at all, how many crabs are infected, which groups of crabs are more or less likely to be infected,” says Van Kirk. “We have some interest in whether or not the crabs can be used as alternative lobster bait, so if they are carrying this parasite, are they safe to use as lobster bait or not?”

In addition to this work, Van Kirk and his team developed a platform for citizen scientists to report their findings back to Van Kirk as they are out hunting eider ducks. Maine Duck Hunters are encouraged to report on what they find while out hunting, using the iNaturalist technology used by Van Kirk’s research team, which helps them map and count samples without spending hours of time in the field collecting data themselves, and involves the community with the research being conducted.

Moving forward, Van Kirk hopes to carry knowledge he gained from the seven years he spent at the University of Maine and bring that to other places in New England. Having spent so much time researching and mentoring students along the way, Van Kirk hopes he can take that experience and continue to give it to other students across the East Coast.